12th Apr 2024


No Tories are now defending Brexit — and Truss is noticing

  • Liz Truss and Emmanuel Macron in Prage last week. Inch-by-inch Britain is reconnecting with Europe (Photo: 10 Downing Street)
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The visit by new UK prime minister Liz Truss to Prague last week to take part in French president Emmanuel Macron's European Political Community launch meeting was very important.

After six years of English rightwing politicians and journalists pitting scorn at France, especially Macron, this was quite a U-turn. Brexit Conservatives have devoted a great deal of energy to attacking Macron and rubbishing France.

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This is the long tradition of British isolationism that sees France as a rival — foe for being number one nation in Europe in the last 150 years.

France was perceived as the principal counter-force to Brexit but the mood in London in ruling political, financial, and opinion forming circles is that the steam is going out of the Brexit balloon. Brexit is now seen as a bore, replete with negatives for economic, scientific and civil society.

It is impossible to find a minister who will defend Brexit.

Boris Johnson claimed that his election win in 2019 was because the nation rallied to his slogan "Get Brexit Done."

Starmer silent on Brexit

The opposition Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has rejected all radicalism and just offers a more sensible, centrist management of the nation's affairs than the oddball Tory MPs who would fit comfortably into American politics as Trump ultra-enthusiasts.

But Starmer prefers not to talk about Europe. He does not criticise any aspect of Brexit, despite its dire impact on the British economy which is forecast to shrink by four percent as British firms stop trading with their local market across the Channel.

If post-Johnson Tories, and Labour MPs hopeful that their turn in power may come in 2024 (after 14 long years of Conservative rule that have seen the UK economy rarely get out of second gear) this silence suits business and much of the population who prefer to bury their heads in the sand and just avoid discussing Brexit.

There is a complete code of 'omerta' in business outfits like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) or the British Cambers of Commerce (BCC) as well as the City of London, and big foreign owned companies on talking about the negative impact on business from Brexit.

Try reading all the CBI media releases for 2022 and not one was on Brexit despite the huge damage in different ways it is causing UK businesses.

Yet the latest opinion poll, based on interviews with 17,000 people, shows Labour winning 471 seats, Conservatives 85, and the Liberal Democrats 18. This would give Labour an overwhelming majority without the need to form any alliance with the Scottish National Party.

It would be a decisive rejection of Johnson and his hard Brexit.

A poll today is not the same as a vote in two years' time but I think Liz Truss (who was a clear Remainer when I knew her in the Commons, when she voted against Brexit in 2016) now knows that the Johnson lies and demagogy against Europe no longer pull in voters.

Another recent poll shows 46 percent for rejoin to 36 percent for continuing with Brexit. There is no likelihood of a referendum on Europe in any near future, but like prohibition in the US in the 1920s, those willing to say the 2016 vote was good for Britain and its citizens are had to find.

Starmer has come up with his version of Johnson's "Get Brexit Done". The Labour version is "Make Brexit Work" (whatever that means) but Starmer still insists on a flat 'no' to the Customs Union, the Single Market, or allowing British citizens to live, work, settle or retire elsewhere in Europe on the same basis as all citizens of continental European nations.

I was at the Labour conference in Liverpool at the end of September and Labour spokespersons on Europe were still all saying 'No to the EU'.

Prospects for rejoining?

However there is a growing sense that bulk of voters would like a more common sense, pragmatic, in a word — more British — approach.

This is not about rejoining though there is a big Rejoin march on 22 October but at some change of tone and relationship that lessens the damage to the UK.

Truss's conversion to a Johnsonian hard Brexit line after 2016 was just about career and ambition.

She knows she can win back some establishment support by toning down the anti-European hardline.

Lord David Frost, a former diplomat, who has taken up by Johnson and who became an outspoken critics of the EU and even briefly the minister in charge of Brexit has been dumped out of the government by Truss.

Other bigmouth anti-European Johnson Brexit ministers have been dumped from Team Truss. The home secretary Suella Bravermann keeps making noises about "foreign judges" who stop UK deporting refugees to Africa or anywhere without due process.

Bravermann will will get lost in the weeds of the Council of Europe and the European Convention/Court of Human Rights. Truss will not want to join Putin outside the CoE/ECHR.

She and King Charles III want a major high-profile Biden state visit next year. That won't happen unless she puts the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) on a very low heat and stops 10 Downing Street acting as voice of hardline Democratic Unionist Party.

EU Commission vice president Maroš Šefcovič is making good noises about seeking an accommodation on the NIP though the protestant identity ultras of Northern Ireland can always be relied on to try and mess things up.

The obsessive anti-EU former culture minister, Nadine Dorries, now says the UK should rela the Brexit hostility to freedom of movement to allow more EU telecommunications technicians into the UK to increase the broadband coverage in the UK.

Meanwhile, Britain has simply not trained enough doctors, nurses, dentists many specialist technicians this century. Keeping out skilled Europeans does not make sense if Truss's proclaimed ambition to place growth at the heart of UK economic policy is to be realised.

It may seem counter-intuitive after the terrible start Truss has had with her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, but I think she will drop the europhobe demagogy and especially the anti-France, anti-Macron rhetoric of UK politics in recent years.

There was evidence on this in Prague where Truss declared Macron to be a "friend" of her government and agreed that Paris and London would jointly take over the Sizewell C nuclear plant and step up cooperation in energy policy and combatting illegal crossings of the straits of Dover by undocumented refugees and immigrants.

Now Truss has won Downing Street she has no need of fanatical anti-EU Tory MPs. If they or the anti-EU press destroy her that will keep the Tories out of power for more than a generation.

Inch-by-inch Britain is reconnecting with Europe.

Author bio

Denis MacShane is the UK's former minister for Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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